37. “Farewell” (The Hajj Journal)

The Ka'bah

September 27, 2015

My Hajj has officially ended.

The final rite of Hajj is to do one final Tawaf before leaving Mecca. It’s a way of bidding farewell to the House of God; after doing it, a pilgrim isn’t allowed to engage in commerce until they leave Mecca.

It was a bit stressful. We (Abdulrashid and I) were on the second level [of the Haram] when suddenly, out of nowhere, there was a stampede. We never found out what caused it. But one minute we were walking and the next there was a mob of people running toward us. It only lasted about 5-10 seconds, but it was terrifying. I saw Abdulrashid in front of me, and he stopped for a second, then turned and ran as the crowd came closer. I immediately ran to the edge of one of the indoor balconies and pressed myself against the balcony, gripping the stone ledge for my life. Some brave security guards jumped in and stood with their hands in the air, shouting at the crowd to be calm. Thank God nothing bad happened and no one got hurt.

Commentary

The 1 minute stampede

The stampede I mentioned above only lasted for maybe a minute. I don’t know how it started.One of my travel companions said that, when we were first in Mecca, she was praying Fajr in the Haram when there was a loud bang, and people just started running. Everyone thought it was a bomb, but it turns out the reciter just dropped the microphone. But with the entire masjid having speakers like a stadium, it was loud enough to send everyone running in a panic, until the reciter told everyone to be calm.

This time, however, there was no sudden sound. No trigger. It just happened, seemingly out of no where.

Abdulrashid and I were walking and everyone ahead of us suddenly turned around and started running in the opposite direction. Something must have happened beyond my field of view, but all I remember is freezing for half a second as a crowd started rushing toward me, before turning and running. I ran for a few feet and latched onto the balcony ledge and gripped as the crowd passed around me, bumping into me. I felt fear and panic—it actually happened, I was in a stampede.

The security guards jumped into the crowd and shouted at everyone to stop. And, surprisingly, everyone did. The situation erupted and was contained in a matter of minutes. The crowd stopped running, and everyone continued to walk in the proper direction.

After it had finished, though, I remained in a constant state of alert, on edge and waiting for it to happen again. Abdulrashid insisted that we finish at ground level, so it would be quicker. However, it was also the most packed. I fought to try and finish tawaf on the second level because it was more spacious and, if a stampede did happen again, it would be safer. Plus, after what just happened, I didn’t want to be in a crush of people.

Eventually Abdulrashid won out and we finished our tawaf at ground-level. I tied to busy myself with prayers and mindfulness, but my whole body seemed to be on the edge of panic. Death still loomed in the back of my mind.

A common thing people ask is how stampedes can happen, and why can’t people just stop? I wondered that myself.

The truth is, you can’t stop. If you stop, you die. It’s like trying to block a river by standing in it. Fear and panic spread like a wildfire, and it only takes one spark to ignite them. So when people start running, your survival instinct kicks in and you realize that the highest likelihood of survival is if you run with them. You don’t know why you’re running, or when to stop. You just pray to God that you don’t trip.

As I already mentioned earlier, this year was the deadliest Hajj in recent history. May God have mercy on the 2000 dead from the Mina stampede. And after being in a small stampede first hand—where thankfully no one got hurt—I can only imagine the panic and terror of that day. The stories I heard of that moment were frightening; people being trampled, dying under a pile of bodies in the hot sun, children separated from parents.

As I finished tawaf, I was, understandably, anxious. I was here, in the final rite of Hajj, so close to going home, and yet I still had the possibility of death looming over me. In truth, death can occur at any moment—whether you’re in Hajj or not. But, as is evidenced by this writing, by the grace of God I made it through.

Farewell

We finished our tawaf and left the Haram, heading back to the hotel to meet with our group and get ready to go to the airport.

Every now and then, as we walked back, I would steal a glance at the Ka’ba. I remember its black shroud against the night sky, with the tall iconic clocktower looming behind it. As we left, I continued to look behind me, continued to catch another glance at the Ka’ba before I left. Soon I would have to go back to imagining it before me when I prayed, instead of just having to open my eyes and seeing it right there. My eyes teared up. I was happy to go, and sad to leave.

As my journey neared an end, I felt a mix of both relief and sadness. In spite of all the hardships of Hajj, the homesickness, the actual sickness, the heat, and a bevy of other trials, I knew that I was going to miss this experience, this place, these people. I had heard stories of people doing Hajj multiple times in their life. Some people—including our guide—go through this ever year. There’s a special attraction to these holy places, these  guideposts for our souls that guide us back to God. There’s an indescribable pull that your soul yearns for when it finds a place that brings you close to God, marking your soul forever.

And with that, I bid farewell to the Ka’ba. The iconic symbol of my faith. The place where the story of man’s worship of God began. A story that began then and continues today with over a billion worshippers facing it every day. The place where I faced a crisis of faith head on and found my peace.

As we walked out of the Haram, I kept looking behind me until the Ka’ba was obscured by construction and people. As we walked through the courtyard back to the hotel, one of the viewscreens showed a picture of the Ka’ba as part of an announcement. It was as though God was reminding me that even though I can’t see it, even though I’ll have to imagine praying in front of it, it will still be there. And, once upon a time, I was there too.

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